President Donald Trump's vow to "destroy" a rule that prevents religious leaders from preaching politics from the pulpit drew mixed reactions from Baltimore-area clergy on Thursday.
Trump told faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday that he would repeal a rarely enforced IRS rule.
"I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution," Trump said.
Under the rule, which has been in place since 1954, religious leaders who endorse or oppose political candidates from the pulpit may jeopardize their institutions' tax-exempt status. It is named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
Some local leaders warned that changing the rule would blur the line between church and state.
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, senior pastor at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, said such a move could lead partisans to create "shell churches" that would serve as tax dodges for their political activities and diminish the standing of genuine religious institutions.
"It's a terrible idea," Foster Connors said. "It could create a church that has a tax-free funneling scheme. By lumping us into that category, it damages the sense that faith institutions are about something different.
He said endorsements are "a red line that the faith institutions shouldn't cross."
"The fact that some of my colleagues can't see that is really troubling," he said. "That is going to damage the country."
But the Rev. Jean Donnell of Restoration Temple Church in Northeast Baltimore said repeal would be a relief.
"At least I won't have any fear about breaking the law," she said. "I can't tell you who to vote for. I can tell you to pray and I can ask you to vote.
"And if I want to support a certain candidate, I feel like I can do that now."
Trump said religious freedom is "under threat." He did not detail how he might scrap the IRS rule, which he has previously pledged to do away with. It is very rare for a church to actually be penalized.
While some conservative Christians say they would like to see it abolished, repeal does not appear to have widespread public support. Eight in 10 Americans told the religious survey firm Lifeway Research last year that it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church.
For many religious conservatives, whose overwhelming support helped propel Trump to the White House, a more pressing issue they hope he will address is protection for faith-based charities, schools and ministries who object to same-sex marriage and abortion.
The president made no mention at the prayer breakfast of other steps he may take. He said only that religious freedom is a "sacred right."
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, said religious freedom means both freedom to practice and freedom not to practice. He said the separation between religious institutions and the government is fundamental to liberty.
Burg said he values the ability to speak to his congregation about issues of concern, and said religious leaders can and should criticize elected officials when they act against their religious values.
"But at the end of the day, religious leaders bear a great responsibility: to support free and fair elections uninfluenced by tax dollars nor by tax advantages," Burg said in an email. "I should not ask other Americans, who do share my believes, to bear the financial responsibility for my congregation's endorsement of one candidate over another."
Foster Connors said the Johnson Amendment could use some tweaking. He said he would like to see the Trump administration give clearer guidance to religious institutions that want to take positions on issues during election seasons.
If religious leaders want to use their institutions to go further than that, Foster Connors said, they always have the option of forgoing tax-exempt status.
"I think there's a number of faith institutions that will speak out against this repeal," he said.
The Rev. Donte L. Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church, said he wants to ponder the full implications of such a repeal, but had concerns.
Blurring the boundaries between church and state, he said, carries a risk: "When are the recipients of such a 'liberty' bound to the state for something else?"
"Democracy really calls for people's truest opinions for themselves without being swayed unreasonably by leadership," Hickman said. "The church does itself a disservice to identify itself along political lines.
"It is more important for us to speak about agendas and policies over individuals."
Some were still sorting out the implications of Trump's comments Thursday.
Howard Libit, director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he and his board have to better understand the proposal, exactly what restrictions would be lifted and the implications for their community.
"We plan to study it carefully," Libit wrote in an email.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore said that the Catholic Church "strictly complies with the rules governing non-profits." Church leaders are allowed and encouraged to advocate for or against specific causes.
Attempts to reach Muslim leaders late Thursday were not successful.
Religious conservatives, who saw a series of defeats on same-sex marriage, abortion and other issues under former President Barack Obama, have been bolstered by Trump's win.
In a letter last year to Roman Catholics, Trump pledged, "I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."
LGBTQ groups have been anxious that the president could use his executive powers to curb legal advances they have made.
"We think it is entirely possible there could be an executive order that creates religious exemptions," said James Esseks, LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
He said the "narrative" that Trump won't harm the LGBTQ community was "not correct."
The Trump administration said this week that the president would leave intact a 2014 executive order that protects workers for federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The administration said Trump "continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election."
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White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered no details this week on whether Trump could still issue an executive order affecting the LGBTQ community.
"There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now," Spicer said Monday.
During the prayer breakfast, Trump also took a dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the new host of "The Apprentice," the reality TV show Trump previously headlined.
Trump said that since Schwarzenegger took over, the show's ratings have been down, and he asked the audience to "pray for Arnold." Schwarzenegger tweeted in response that he and Trump should switch jobs and Americans would sleep better.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.